This translator will be taking a week-long break and will resume daily updates next week Saturday, August 15th. Thank you all for reading.
Enjoy the chapter!
“County Magistrate Hu needs to give me an explanation for this!”
Having said this, Fan Jin Chuan stormed out with his men, leaving County Magistrate Hu and the others gaping at each other in dismay, their faces in pallor.
No matter what, the incident needed a resolution, so Fan Jin Chuan returned to the county yamen, and County Magistrate Hu followed with his subordinates immediately after.
County Magistrate Hu’s old tears were overflowing. Did he even have any face left?
“Lord Fan, it’s not that this old one is rotten and shameless, but there really was no other choice……”
Upon listening to Country Magistrate Hu’s account, coupled with Assistant Magistrate Liu’s and the others’ testimonies of the past events, Fan Jin Chuan and Fang Feng Sheng were able to apprehend the gist of their plight.
It turned out that this Taizhou deviated from the standard system. In the yamen, there were numerous mixed personnel who did miscellaneous tasks outside of their designated jobs. Furthermore, in the household registry, some civilian households, salt-boiling households, and military households didn’t reside in their apportioned clusters. This variety of people crowding the same area were bound to evoke disharmony.
Since ancient times, Taizhou had been a salt-producing area. Its geographical placement was special, as it was located on the delta of the Yangtze River, the Huai River, and the Yellow Sea. The Yellow Sea had an inexhaustible supply of sea water for boiling salt, while vast marshes and mudflats produced abounding reeds for fuel. The Lixiahe Plain around the Chuanchang River, with its low and flat terrain, dense waterways, and interconnected lakes, also provided tremendous convenience for salt transport.
Half of the country’s tax income hailed from Liang Huai’s salt tax, five to six-tenths of which derived from Taizhou. However, this was not at all something to boast about.
The imperial court naturally paid special attention to such an important place. Not only did they institute a Liang Huai Salt Division Commission adjacent to Yangzhou, in the local Taizhou, they also established a Taizhou Salt Affairs Division and a Tai Dam Directorate and Inspection Office, as well as batch inspection areas and other salt affairs offices. They managed the Fu’an yard, Anfeng yard, Duo yard, Liangduo yard1, etc. within about ten salterns; they also regulated salt transfer, transport of goods, tax collection, suppression of smugglers, and so on.
Boiling salt required labor, so salt-boiling households were thus effected, and each saltern had jurisdiction over ten thousands of such households. It also necessitated reed or marsh grass as fuel, so growing these grasses were indispensable. Since there was official salt overseen by the authorities, there was bound to be untaxed ‘private’ salt circulating underhand. To prevent these from pervading, salt affairs offices and salterns were in charge of public security and subduing of smugglers at local salterns.
Inevitably, various conflicts stemmed between salt affairs offices and the local government.
The salterns not only divided the administrative power of the local government, they also hindered them from levying taxes.
Local officials were in charge of collecting local taxes, but salt-boiling households only paid salt tax and were exempt from other exorbitant taxes despite falling under Taizhou’s purview. In the end, they were still people residing outside the city, and local officials couldn’t achieve anything without levying miscellaneous taxes from them.
Local land was classified into two types: farmland and marsh fields.2 Both were subjected to land tax, but the government wasn’t at all interested in receiving tax in the form of marsh grass. Hence, the marsh field tax was far lower than that of farmland tax. As a result, this birthed another kind of chaos. Some rich families exploited this and disguised their farmland as marsh fields in an attempt to pay less or no taxes, deceiving the officials above and deluding the farmers below.
Salt needed fuel to boil, and sometimes, marsh fields didn’t produce enough grass, so there were people who would covertly encroach farmlands and transform them into marsh fields.
The only thing that concerned salterns was whether or not the amount of salt produced each year met the imperial court’s requirements. So much so that, when private salt proliferated uncontrolled, the imperial court quota was unfulfilled. In order to overcome the deficit, they requested the local government to exempt them from the marsh tax, or have them assume the responsibility of the marsh tax. Without the marsh tax, they would have more marsh grass for fuel, and hence produce more salt.
In other words, the local government was precisely caught in the middle. They had to submit to circumstances and were thus unable to achieve anything. Consequently, their authority was undermined, making it a laborious feat for them to collect taxes.
They could still condone these mires, but there were still more disheartening worries that pressed them. That was, Taizhou was intertwined with three rivers, and the Yellow River’s sporadic diversion of route ensued frequent floods; typhoons also ravaged the area because of its proximity to the Yellow Sea. In the past five years alone, countless disasters befell them, and every single time, the local government had to provide the people relief.
So, how would it have been possible for them to amass grain in the Changping granary? Furthermore, half of it was fake, including the grain in the county yamen‘s granary.
After listening to County Magistrate Hu’s and the others’ narrative, and watching them weeping so miserably, Fan Jin Chuan’s face was visibly moved.
At this time, Fang Feng Sheng spoke.
She shook her fan and expressed in a tone riddled with cynicism, “No matter how embarrassed Lord Hu is, none of those is a valid excuse to attempt shifting the responsibility to my lord. Besides, with so much deficient grain, don’t tell me that you want my lord to compensate for it?”
Feng Sheng snapped her fan close, producing a crisp sound, and said: “Let’s do it like this. We will no longer investigate further into the matter, but you will have to fill in the grain.”
After that assertion, she tugged Fan Jin Chuan to leave, “It’s also time for a meal. Let’s go eat.”
Fan Jin Chuan seemed to want to discuss things further, but she forcibly dragged him away.
When they reached a remote area, Fan Jin Chuan’s footsteps halted, “Worthy Brother, why do you need to make it so difficult for them? I can report this matter to my superior, his lordship prefectural magistrate, to see if we can reduce the next season’s land tax to fill the Changping granary……”
“You, stop it! Do you really think they’re as miserable as they say they are?”
“Could they be faking it?” Fan Jin Chuan was a bit muddled.
“There’s one or two lies out of ten that’s mixed in, and you may not be able to tell the difference. Just wait, in two days, you’ll know whether or not it’s all pretense.”
After partaking the meal, each went back to their rooms for a nap.
When they arose, Fang Feng Sheng pulled Fan Jin Chuan to play a game of Go.
During that time, County Magistrate Hu and Assistant Magistrate Liu had come to seek an audience, but Fang Feng Sheng ordered her servants to refuse the guests at the door.
One day passed this way, and the second day like so. On the third day, Feng Sheng bid Zhi Qiu and Xiao Qi to deliberately gossip outside, saying that the master intended to write to his lordship prefectural magistrate.
That same evening, Assistant Magistrate Liu turned up, informing that County Magistrate Hu had recompensed the missing grain.
Since the missing grain was his sole problem, County Magistrate Hu didn’t bother dropping Fan Jin Chuan a visit and departed with his family the next day after relinquishing the great seal.
“Worthy Brother, how did you know they were swindling us? And why were you so certain they would replenish the grain?”
Fan Jin Chuan pestered and trailed after Fang Feng Sheng for half a morning.
But Fang Feng Sheng paid him no heed, squandering her time drinking tea and playing Go with Zhi Qiu. She even hopped out for a stroll when she grew bored of sitting.
It wasn’t until noon, when Feng Sheng found his desolate appearance a bit pitiful, that she spoke to him.
“Because I have a great dad.”
Eh? What did that mean?
Feng Sheng felt a little helpless as she elaborated: “Do you think the reputation of Shaoxing’s private advisors sprouted out of nowhere? We’re different from ordinary advisors. Take me as an example. I grew up listening to all sorts of odd affairs happening in officialdom. Family and kin, and even fellow villagers, exchange a variety of bizarre anecdotes. There are even those who write handbooks about their experiences, about what they had seen and heard, and pass them on to their descendants, accumulating them from generation to generation. All those were real experiences, so one shouldn’t discount any of them as they’ll be of help in due time.
“What they did this time is not a secret in officialdom. To eat away next year’s food in advance, they even resell the grain at Changping granary to profit from the price difference. This difference is precisely how they gain money. When one takes, one forgets to fill the hole. Those at the top eat the meat, while those below them drink only the soup. If one can conceal the matter, one can cheat. One takes office, then deceives the one succeeding him, and the one that follows does the same; it has become a grave and chronic disease.”
“Then why hasn’t anyone come out to take care of it?”
“Who would care?”
The words were so stifling that Fan Jin Chuan was stunned mute. It was apparent that such a revelation diverged from the concept inherent in his mind. His face reddened from disillusionment, and it took him a while to utter a word.
“If no one cares and the granary is empty, how will you provide relief once you run into a disaster?”
“Wait for those above to send out disaster relief.”
“What if those above didn’t send out aid, but instead let the local area provide its own?”
“Stall, or ask the big households to donate food.”
“What if we see the people about to starve to death, but the big households refuse to donate?”
“As fate would have it. But don’t worry, there are always more means than troubles, and no one will stay blind and leave them starving to the point of death.”
Fan Jin Chuan exhaled roughly and continued, “They’re not afraid of getting exposed doing this?”
Feng Sheng took in his pitiful expression and sighed, “Of course they’re afraid, but there will inevitably be people who get lucky. It’s hard to fill their insatiable greed. I remember reading a similar story before. The county magistrate coveted the land tax, and when a local disaster struck, there was no grain for relief. As a result, numerous commoners starved to death. In order to elude punishment, this man falsely claimed that a mob raided Changping granary and robbed the grain. Not only did he remain unpunished afterwards, he even managed to somewhat straighten out the local government’s chronic disease.”
He didn’t respond, and she further spoke, “One official governs another. Since you can’t bear witnessing this, you should just do your part as a good official. As for others, you can’t control them, so pay them no mind.”
Fan Jin Chuan dallied away.
Zhi Qiu couldn’t help but say, “Young Master, why did you tell Lord Fan all this? Look at his face.”
Feng Sheng leaned against her chair and cooled herself with her fan, “The environment here is complex. He’s upright by nature and a pedant who only knows how to read. I also have my own business to do; even if I can’t borrow him as a helper, he at least shouldn’t give me any trouble. Otherwise, I’ll exhaust myself tidying up his mess.”
“I think Lord Fan is quite pitiful like that.”
“That’s for his own good. Otherwise, how will he grow?”
Feng Sheng suspected that Fan Jin Chuan was sent down to disenchant him and apprise him of the current affairs. But, down to a place like Taizhou, were they not afraid he’d be played to death?
Some of you might find the taxes confusing. These are taxes imposed on producers of commodities, and most of them are in the form of the goods they produce. In Taizhou’s case, their land tax is often in the form of grain (a.k.a. grain tribute, which can also be money, but mostly grain), or whatever their produce for that land is. Marsh fields produce reeds, so the ‘tax’ collected from them will be in form of reed, which only makes sense for the government to have no interest in them, thus taxing them less. Likewise, salt tax is in the form of salt. How much the government sells them for is then the tax income, thus generating silver.
Salt is a heavily regulated commodity in the ancient times, and circulating salt in private is naturally illegal, since they produce no tax. Salt-boiling households asking the government to exempt them from the marsh tax is so they could have more marsh grass to boil more salt with, accommodating both the imperial court quota, as well as their selfish interests of producing private salt.
Salt distribution is another case, which will be for the later chapters. It’s all relevant to the plot, that’s why the author is very detailed in her world-building. But I hope you enjoy all this historical stuff as much as I did.
1 安场, 安丰场, 垛场, 梁垛场: these are probably just names of yards within the salterns. These names translate to stuff like peace and target, so it doesn’t really make that much sense to me. 场 is also a general term for public spaces where people gather, so I have no idea what they’re specifically for. However, most of my resource books translate it as yard.
2 荡地 (dàng de): lit. marsh or shallow lakes where tall grasses grow